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Foreign Policy

U.S.-Russia Relations Touch Bottom

Jun 29, 2021
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

The U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva, which had been months in the making, lasted only about four hours. Afterward, the White House released the United States -Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability. U.S. President Joe Biden described the meeting as positive, while Putin expressed satisfaction as well.

Earlier, Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of RDIF, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, told U.S. media that “U.S.-Russia relations are like a falling knife that must be caught before it hits the floor.” Judging from the outcome of the meeting, the knife seems to have been caught.

Many of the agenda topics had been on the table before the summit, yet from the perspective of mutual interest, what drives the summit may be strategic stability of bilateral relations, domestic political competition and a comprehensive review of China policy in the making.

First, the U.S. and Russia need to maintain strategic stability in their relationship. After the end of the Cold War, the United States reshaped the postwar Eurasian order through the eastward expansion of NATO. Through the Russia-Georgia war and the Ukraine crisis, Russia temporarily took the momentum out of NATO’s eastward expansion, but this did not solve the national security concerns of Russia. Tit-for-tat sanctions and counter-sanctions between the U.S. and Russia have shrunk their maneuvering leeway, and the prospect of military conflict with NATO members and partner countries is increasing. Both sides need to sit down to reconcile their interests, with the need to avoid armed conflict in mind.

Second, the domestic politics of both the United States and Russia will play a role. Biden in practice continues to play by the predecessor’s “America first” principle in a way that combines internal affairs and foreign policy, in an effort to turn the U.S. into a model of a successful nation, under the slogan “America is back.” While holding high the banner of multilateralism, Biden’s top priority is to win seats in Congress for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. Whether the Democratic Party will maintain its majority status will have a direct bearing on the governing efficiency of the administration in the next two years and could be an indicator of how the 2024 presidential election will play out.

Similarly, Putin is also faced with multiple domestic challenges. Economic sanctions have taken their toll on Russia’s development. Russia needs capital and technology from Western countries to promote social and economic development at home and get back to the fold of the international system. In addition, winning the 2021 Russian Duma election is a priority for Putin and his party, United Russia.

Third is the question of balancing China. Sino-Russian relations are a key indicator as the U.S. assesses its policy toward China. The Biden administration can rely on its NATO allies to deter Russia. Thus, if the U.S.-Russia relationship is stable, the U.S. will have more resources available to  pressure China in the Asia-Pacific region.

On the surface, a tougher line toward China by the Biden administration could strengthen Russia’s hand in its own bargaining with China. But from a balance-of-power perspective, Putin will not dance to Biden’s tune. In a unipolar system, a close Sino-Russian relationship is in Russia’s favor in terms of maintaining a global strategic balance. Without this strategic balance, the only tool left for Russia to counteract the United States is nuclear weapons.

Apparently, while the U.S.-Russia summit was positive and suggested an improved relationship between the two countries, it is clear that it did not produce answers to the major problems they face and that it has only temporarily touched bottom.

In April, Russia sent military vessels to deter Ukraine on the sea and sent tens of thousands of soldiers to the Russia-Ukraine border, increasing hostility toward Russia by new NATO members and partners. The foreign ministers of the three Baltic states issued a joint statement saying they would strengthen defense cooperation in response to Russia’s actio and explore cooperation in joint procurement.

After the Biden administration lifted sanctions on Nord Stream 2, Poland said it posed a threat to energy security in Central and Eastern Europe. Regarding the South Caucasus area, the Georgian defense minister emphasized in May the importance of a partnership between NATO and Georgia and pledged to devote 2 percent of GDP to defense construction.

In addition, areas open to arms control cooperation are limited. The New START treaty, which the U.S. and Russia agreed to extend, embodies the area of least divergence between the two sides, and the U.S. seeks to pursue negotiations with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons, which are an important complement to Russia’s efforts to make up for its military inadequacy. Currently, Russia leads the U.S. in the number of tactical nuclear weapons, a formidable bargaining chip for Russia’s military competition with the United States and its NATO allies. Besides, U.S.-Russian cooperation in new arms control areas such as space, cyberspace and artificial intelligence will prove to be more challenging.

Against the backdrop of the global strategic power imbalance, the U.S. will be tempted to shift from isolationist to internationalist, but the goal of advancing its own security interests will remain unchanged. The theory of casting China as a systemic threat is a fallacy, and China is actually happy to see improvements in U.S.-Russia relations in the interest of maintaining global strategic stability, protecting national interests and keeping the Eurasian regional order in a state of relative peace.

From the perspective of U.S. strategic competition with China, an improving U.S.-Russia relationship will put some pressure on China, and the U.S. will definitely divert strategic resources to deal with China, boosting the intensity of U.S.-China competition. For this reason, China and the U.S. need to create more communication channels and work to build a “warm peace,” even in a competitive relationship.

Now that the U.S.-Russia summit has taken place, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, the U.S. is considering a meeting with the leaders of China. The international community would welcome  a meeting by the world’s largest and second-largest economies because it would contribute to global strategic stability. 

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